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The problem with Persuasion

An agonisingly bad adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion hits a new low in the increasing Netflixisation of content

What's the deal with the rabbit, anyway?
What's the deal with the rabbit, anyway?

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You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever... I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.” Jane Austen wrote these lines in her last novel, Persuasion, over 200 years ago, and they are proof, if proof were needed, that she did not write the kind of prose that would make you reach for a SparkNotes compendium to decipher. Austen is as readable today as in 1817, when Persuasion was published, so it is a mystery why the makers of the latest adaptation of the novel found it necessary to “modernise” her dialogue by adding lines like “Now we’re worse than exes, we’re friends” and “Good talk!”, which seem to have been taken straight from a mediocre romance novel or, worse, some sort of algorithm that spits out Instagram captions.

And it’s not just the dialogue. Austen’s Anne Elliot is a wounded creature, neglected and humiliated by her foolish, egotistical father and sister, mourning the loss of her youth and beauty, and regretting the weakness that led to her being persuaded, many years ago, to give up the man she loved for material reasons. And yet, in Austen’s writing, her turmoil is internal—outwardly, she is calm, useful Anne, forever called upon by her family to be a glorified housekeeper and baby-sitter because “she’s only Anne”. Turning her into a clumsy, gauche heroine who swigs wine, cries into her pillow, scrapes her chair loudly during a dinner party and trips during an attempt to eavesdrop on a conversation is the kind of humiliation Austen never put her heroine through. The adorable klutz is a trope of generic 1990s romcoms that should have died by now, and it is bizarre that this movie would use it on Anne while leaving her quiet strength and defiance unexplored.

It shows a strange and wilful contempt for the source material that many, more daring adaptations of Austen haven’t. Clueless (1995), which famously reimagined the social dynamics and snobbery of an English village as the social dynamics and snobbery of a clique-y high school, is at its heart pure Austen—and more importantly, it works even if you have no idea that it has an Austen connection. But even with that purist filter off (and trust me, I tried), Persuasion comes off as bizarre and inconsistent—is this Anne the kind of person who willingly gives up a dinner party to stay up with a sick child because she’s afraid of meeting the man she rejected years ago or the kind who—inexplicably—yells his name out of the window before reaching for a bottle of wine and upturning gravy over her head?

It is okay, even expected, for a modern-day adaptation to want to add dimensions to characters from a historical novel by exploring feelings and behaviour that were left unwritten in a more conservative and decorous age but this has to remain consistent within the space of the film. Instead, in the lead character (and we have to focus on her because all the other characters in this film, including the love interest, are shadowy and unreal) we get an unwieldy pastiche with bits taken from Anne Elliot of the book and someone patently created for the Bridgerton generation, which wants to see sumptuous sets and ridiculous-but-beautiful costumes without grappling with the injustice of restrictive social customs (except the ones that make one giggle) or the hidden cruelty beneath all the splendour.

Ignoring all that, adding dialogue like “if you’re a 5 in London, you’re a 10 in Bath” and highlighting a love triangle makes it all so much more relatable, you know—and relatability is everything that underpins the Netflixisation of content.

Unfortunately, this includes the mixed-race casting of Persuasion, something it has in common with other dramas set in the same period, like Bridgerton. One knows why shows are increasingly doing this, and it springs from a noble impulse—period films and shows with all-white casts have traditionally excluded actors of colour, and it is laudable to want to reimagine famous novels as taking place in a post-race world. But there has to be some indication that this is a parallel universe. While Austen was no radical anti-colonialist, her writing includes references to plantations worked on by slaves and she was aware of the source of much of the wealth in Britain during her time, so to pretend that this never happened and race is not a thing is actually quite insulting.

Here’s an audacious suggestion for film-makers who are aching to make more British period dramas: Leave Austen and the Regency alone and look at the wealth of content crying out for adaptation, from Charles Dickens to Wilkie Collins. Writing from the Victorian era is much more robust and egalitarian than the mannered, upper-class settings of Austen’s novels—and if this agonising version of Persuasion is anything to go by, you don’t get it anyway.

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